What astronaut diaries tell us about the perils of a mission to Mars

People will put up with a lot to achieve a first—but a researcher warns against a longer route to the Red Planet.

August 2007 was a special time on the International Space Station. A shuttle crew—new blood, fresh supplies—would soon arrive. Astronaut Clayton Anderson, the only American aboard since that June, was ready for new people to talk to.

First, though, he had to deal with ­Mission Control. Anderson had come aboard the ISS with the explicit goal of improving procedures for future crews; his work on the ground had included astronaut support and communications. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that he regularly felt annoyed by the tedious processes Houston demanded he follow. In preparation for the shuttle’s arrival, for instance, they had instructed him to remove a special spacewalk bag (storage for equipment like gloves and eyeglasses) from the airlock, place it in a second bag, take a new spacewalk bag from the arriving crew, remove the old bag from the outer bag, and give it to the new arrivals to put in the shuttle.

If you think that sounds convoluted, Anderson would agree. He tried to suggest a simpler approach, but the people on the ground weren’t interested. In fact, the flight director forwarded him an email containing their frustrated internal communications: “Why doesn’t he just be quiet and do what he’s told?” and “Why don’t they just bring him home?”

Anderson kept notes and journals about his gripes—as well as more-pleasant experiences—and turned his reminiscences into a 2015 memoir, The Ordinary Spaceman. But his diaries were also part of a review that NASA had commissioned to identify the most difficult aspects of lengthy space travel as the agency began planning for missions to Mars and elsewhere. Promised anonymity, Anderson and 19 other space-station crewmembers shared their reflections with anthropologist Jack Stuster, who heads a consulting firm specializing in behavioral research. Password-protected and encrypted, the dear-diaries winged their way to ground stations whenever the astronauts composed an entry. They slipped onto a NASA server, Stuster downloaded them, and NASA deleted them. Anderson notwithstanding, only Stuster knows the identities of the spacefarers he followed in a pair of studies conducted between 2003 and 2016.

During his 152 days aboard the ISS, Anderson continued to express his irritation to Stuster. On another occasion, he and two crewmembers each detached and reattached the same door, along with its 44 fasteners, for different chores on the same day. Why hadn’t Mission Control let them do all those tasks while the door was off the first time? Just days after the space-bag incident, he cut all but essential communication with the ground. When he returned to Earth, the Astronaut Evaluation Board noted, “Clay will need to rebuild his relationship with Mission Control if he is to fly again.”

Anderson, though, thinks people on the ground could be more considerate of astronauts’ experiences. “Imagine you’re living in your house, and someone 100 miles away is trying to tell you the best place to pack stuff and put stuff away,” Anderson, now retired, says about his time in orbit. “It was very frustrating to me.”

Stuster saw Anderson not as an overly autonomous subordinate, but rather as a crewmember bucking the tradition of “praise inflation.” Astronauts and their handlers typically act more solicitously toward each other than they would in person: lots of congratulations, unearned compliments, pleases, and thank-yous. Mission Control, used to constant deference, couldn’t brook Anderson’s opinions. “They labeled Clay a complainer and treated him badly,” Stuster says. “It was unfair and petty.”

Having studied the human dynamics of space travel since the ’80s, Stuster has often seen relations between crew and ground falter in similar ways. The distance between Earth and astronauts will only grow, literally and figuratively, on missions to places like Mars. This will introduce fresh challenges.

Stuster recently finished a new study that analyzes NASA’s hypothetical plans for such a journey: what the trip would require of space travelers and the kinds of problems they might experience, from dental emergencies to behavioral breakdowns. He says the current Red Planet strategy makes him nervous. NASA wants to increase the route time from around six months each way to a year per leg. Going slower would save fuel and money—just as biking is cheaper than driving. “It’s extremely dangerous,” he says. The crew’s exposure to radiation would double. And the longer its members remain confined, the risk of behavioral and psychological issues would skyrocket. ­“NASA’s going in the wrong direction,” ­Stuster says. “My mission is to convince the mission planners that is a bad idea.”

Computer keyboard keys in zero gravity
“I think I do need to get out of here,” wrote an astronaut. “Living in close quarters with people over a long period of time, even things that normally wouldn’t bother you much at all can bother you after a while.” The Voorhes

For 13 years, 20 astronauts typed their joy, pain, annoyance, elation, boredom, anger, contentment, and loneliness into massive files that, by Stuster’s estimate, could fill two Russian novels he alone would read. “They might not confess their frailties to their colleagues or their flight surgeon, but they did to me,” says Stuster of the material for the two studies he completed, first from 2003 to 2010, then 2011 to 2016. With the data dumps complete, he could start looking for trends.

No surprise, the novelty of space travel eventually wore off as newer ISS crewmembers got used to watching the great world spin below. “I don’t quite feel the compulsion to head to the cupola every spare second anymore,” a diarist wrote about the seven-windowed domed module. “Not saying the view isn’t amazing, it is, but I don’t feel that curiosity quite as much.”

Still, the ISS offered other new experiences, including tethering oneself to the hull and floating in the cosmos. If those activities didn’t happen, though, disappointment could hit hard. “I’ve been avoiding the journal,” confessed a participant when NASA canceled their spacewalk, which, they noted, “is a bit of a dagger in the heart.” The crewmember, channeling optimism, recounted the positives: safety and health first. Still, it took two days to put away all the equipment and tear down the riggings. “Let me tell you, that sucked.”

Even when time passed as planned, work always floated to top of mind—as did its constraints. “Today was a hard day,” someone wrote. “Small things are getting to me. I am tired. I think that the ground is scheduling less time for tasks than before.” Another diarist noted that it sometimes seemed like Mission Control didn’t have a clue what things were actually like out in space: “Only 30 minutes to execute a 55-step procedure that required collecting 21 items.”

Clearly, Anderson wasn’t the only crewmember displeased with NASA’s inscrutable ways. How many people does it take to change a lightbulb on the ISS? Just one—but a lot of effort. “I had to have safety glasses and a vacuum cleaner handy,” a frustrated flier wrote. But the bulb was already in a plastic case that would have contained any shards if it broke. “Also, I had to take a photo of the installed bulb before turning it on,” they added. “Why? I have no idea! It’s just the way NASA does things.”

The tedium compounded quickly. “I become more convinced every day that we sacrifice crew efficiency and time on orbit to make things easier/cheaper for the ground,” someone grumbled about being forced to do a “consumables audit”: opening bags of supplies, removing and counting everything, then putting it all back—rather than keeping track as they used items.

Those processes could also prove worthless. Once, due to a NASA miscommunication, main courses would be used up two weeks before a resupply arrived. “We should not have complained about chicken, since that chicken may soon run out!” a crewmember opined. Another, during a nutrition shortage, lamented the results of calorie restriction. “It makes a big difference whether one is choosing to lose the weight or if one is being forced,” they wrote, hangrily.

ISS residents could also annoy one another—both online and in real life. When an astronaut was livestreaming or became internet famous, teammates would grow resentful of the work their colleague missed. They also experienced the “she’s breathing on me” difficulties akin to siblings on weekend road trips. “I think I do need to get out of here,” a journal-keeper admitted. “Living in close quarters with people over a long period of time, even things that normally wouldn’t bother you much at all can bother you after a while.”

Orbiting teams didn’t always complain, though. Lighter fare included floating competitions to see who could do the illest tricks. One ISS resident, undressing in a room with a view, told crewmates they were mooning the world. Journals recounted American and Russian crews watching the Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey together.

On another occasion, a ­science-​­fiction-​­literate astronaut made uninitiated team members screen all the Star Trek movies. The first time Spock gave the V-shaped Vulcan salute, the group spontaneously attempted the gesture. “To see them doing something for the first time that I did for the first time about 40 years ago was unbelievably funny and nostalgic,” this person wrote.

Taking and sharing photographs was also a prime joy. One shutterbug tried for a week to catch Kerguelen Island, a French station in Antarctica, where researchers also toil in isolation. Finally, they spotted it, and successfully snapped an image of their analogs. “I think I’ll try to email it to the folks there,” they wrote.

Seeing Earth from above, as a borderless planet in blank space, also causes a mood shift that psychologists call the overview effect. With our orb in its proper (insignificant) cosmic context, national boundaries become social constructs, and viewers come to value the globe as beautiful, fragile, and worth caring for. As one astronaut put it, “I think I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to understand what I saw here every day for 6 months.”

Throughout it all, the planet below held its appeal. “My list of things I miss the most has grown,” someone wrote. “Family first, then a shower, then a latte, then rain.… I miss being under a blanket of clouds and guess I’ll always be a child of the Earth.”

Stuster has spent much of his 40-​plus-year career analyzing how humans handle objectively unpleasant exploration by land, sea, and space. His terrestrial research looked at, for example, polar adventurers trapped in tents and on ships, and it informed his thinking on the astronauts, trapped in an orbiting tin can. “Engineers, architects build models and subject them to stresses,” he says. “Medical researchers use animal models, even economic models, to test hypotheses. And in the behavioral sciences, we look to analogous conditions.” He began working with NASA in the 1980s and soon convinced the agency that this approach could help forecast space-station hardships.

He started by reading historic reports, from Christopher Columbus onward, to learn what had plagued and placated past explorers. Take ­Belgica‘s journey to Antarctica, the first to winter over. When the vessel got stuck in ice for nearly a year, its physician, Frederick Cook, prescribed exercise: The crew walked around and around the ship daily, in what they came to call the Madhouse Promenade. Cook directed the maddest, saddest people to sit before the stove, whose light and heat seemed impossible after so much cold and dark. With scurvy setting in, they began eating penguin meat, which prevented further breakdowns in a broken situation.

Ritual, structure, exercise, sensation, and sustenance seemed key to Stuster. Fridtjof Nansen, who led the first team across Greenland, could have told you all that in 1897. “Truly,” he wrote in his book Farthest North, “the whole secret lies in arranging things sensibly, and especially in being careful about the food.” On a North Pole expedition, Nansen and a companion spent nine winter months stuck in a hut above the Arctic Circle. “Their entire world [was] illuminated by the pale glow of a blubber lamp that you can hold in your hand,” Stuster says.

The two men emerged intact. “Humans,” Stuster says, “can endure almost anything to be among the first.”

After he sorted the ISS journal entries, he realized that operations in orbit were no longer novel enough to excuse hardship. Astronauts can put up with a lot if they get to wear the badge of being “the first.” But, by the time Stuster’s initial study began in 2003, crews had been doing stints on the ISS since 2000. The austere conditions now chafed. The structure was sometimes too rigid, as the diaries noted, and the food subpar. But holiday celebrations, regular calls to family, movie nights, and the daily wake/​work/​run-​on-​a-​floating-​­treadmill/​sleep routine helped boost morale.

In his 2010 report, Stuster suggested ­friction-​­reducing tweaks like evenly distributing tedious tasks among crewmembers, making work meaningful, and scheduling enough time for chores. Mission Control should correct errors and deficiencies in procedures, and give astronauts as much influence as possible over their schedules; include them in discussions about whatever might affect them, such as changes in policy; and get training on the unique challenges of their isolation and confinement in space.

Apparently not a lot changed, because Stuster wrote pretty much the same thing again in 2016, at the conclusion of his second diary study. At least by then, praise inflation had deflated, he noted, citing a healthier and more mature dynamic.

Alexandra Whitmire is deputy scientist for NASA’s human factors and behavior performance research group, which oversees the strategies the agency employs for its astronauts on future missions. “We look at the gaps between where we are and where we need to be, and we solicit research to help address these gaps,” Whitmire says. Her group specifically advocated for Stuster’s work. “He’s made a tremendous contribution.” Having concrete analyses like his, rather than conjecture, she says, “lends credibility to areas that we think NASA needs to focus on.” Stuster’s studies will inform future efforts and strategy direction, even if they don’t make it into operational policies immediately.

Space missions have one distinct disadvantage compared to the Belgica and other earthly expeditions: Once those bygone pioneers ventured out on their own, they truly were on their own. No one in a sooty city could tell them how they should run their fat-cell light source. In space, though, a terrestrial agency is still the boss. On a Mars mission, the crew would be more autonomous because of the lag in communications and the inability of those on Earth to give direct help—a difference that could cause new issues. Still, when you’re in orbit, it’s easy to believe that those back on land just don’t get it. It’s like how teenagers feel about their parents. Neither group is really wrong.

Relations tend to be exacerbated by what psychologist Vadim Gushin of the Russian Academy of Sciences calls “psychological closing.” Sequestered in the monotony and isolation of space, astronauts start to limit their conversation with the ground. While this is happening, the crew is getting better at space life. (What does some guy in Korolyov know about extravehicular activity? Has Houston ever had to wear goggles to change a bulb?) Ground, Gushin suggests, “should turn from controlling the crew to consulting,” as they naturally would on distant missions. That’s good, because as Stuster has noted, only astronauts understand what it’s like to be astronauts.

Astronaut working outside the ISS
Astronauts can put up with a lot if they get to wear the badge of being first. NASA

Partly because of that fundamental limit to empathy, friction will likely always exist between the landlubbers and the low-Earth orbiters. And that’s not entirely bad. Getting angry at your crewmates would make life in the spacecraft untenable. Sometimes it’s better to toss your feelings downward. It’s classic displacement, says Nick Kanas, a University of California at San Francisco psychiatrist who did 10 years of research on the ISS and Mir astronauts. “You have a boss who tells you to do something, you can’t tell him off. You go home and yell at your spouse,” he says. Aboard the ISS, you yell at Jim in Houston.

On a trip to Mars, Jim will get farther and farther away, and this planet’s pale blue point will grow smaller and smaller. “Nobody knows what it will mean to an astronaut to see Earth as an insignificant dot,” Kanas says. Barring mission simulations—sending astronauts to the moon and pretending it’s Mars (which NASA has no plans to invest in)—“we may just have to wing it more than we’d like .”

Stuster thinks NASA is winging the whole Mars thing more than it should. He discovered a few years ago that the agency didn’t even have a comprehensive list of tasks the astronauts would perform on a mission to the Red Planet, so they didn’t know what kind of crew would do the best job. One geologist or three? All or no Air Force pilots? What would the spacesuits be like? “Even the designers of yoga pants and running shoes and hiking boots have a firm understanding of the work that will be performed,” he says. NASA had a prototype spacesuit, but no grasp of exactly what ­astronauts will do while thusly attired.

That’s why, in December 2018, Stuster provided NASA with a report that identifies each task, and assesses how hard it is to learn, how often it needs to be done, and how important it is. He based it on a mission that spends six months in transit in each direction, and 18 months on the Martian surface, which until recently had been NASA’s favored itinerary.

Now the agency leans ­toward a longer travel time. More “are we there yet?” moments and less time at the destination would reduce energy and engineering expenses, but Stuster believes those cuts will have human costs. Based on the rate of behavioral problems on earthly expeditions, he estimates a 99 percent chance that someone on a Mars mission will develop serious issues, like depression so severe they can no longer function as part of the crew, or become a danger to themselves. On Earth, you’d send that someone to a hospital. Stuster and Kanas agree that a Mars-bound ship should include restraints in its emergency equipment. One of the required tasks in Stuster’s 2018 report is “Apply physical force and binding/duct tape, manually with the help of another crewmember, to restrain a crewmember experiencing a behavioral emergency.”

Even if everyone stays sane, though, they won’t stay the same. The longer the astronauts spend together, absent the influence of Earth, the more they’ll form their own subculture. Stuster has noted that even on the relatively short stays aboard the ISS, crews morph into communities with their own social norms, such as focusing on overarching goals rather than individual or national differences (something we’re not great at down here). Left without much outside influence, forced to get along in a claustrophobic space, they evolve new ways of interacting that keep the peace and make their mutual isolation tolerable. Just imagine how much deeper those conventions will become when the community members can no longer see their planet.

They’ll become Marslings. Earthtians. No one knows, exactly, what their private society will endure to be among the first.

This story originally published in the Out There issue of Popular Science.